It's kind of a cliché to say that sometimes you can see a disaster coming from miles and miles away. But that was the reality with Hurricane Maria last month, when the National Hurricane Center issued 17 consecutive forecasts that the deadly major hurricane was going to make a direct hit on the densely populated island of Puerto Rico and the 3.4 million American citizens who live there.
In the days before Maria's landfall on Sept. 20, the anxiety was palpable — not just from the storm but over the question of whether Trump would marshal the massive response the hurricane would require, when the island's residents are primarily black and brown, and when they can't cast a single ballot in the 2020 election. It didn't seem possible, but the White House response — both logistically and morally — to the growing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands has been even worse than many of us dared to imagine. And it's been fueled by something else that America saw coming from miles and miles away, from that day in June 2015 when the short-fingered vulgarian descended an escalator in Trump Tower to announce his divisive candidacy — and that is the racism of Donald Trump.
Trump's international embarrassment of a presidency seemed to reach a new valley one weekend ago, when huge chunks of Puerto Rico were submerged and the full extent of its total loss of electricity and the absence of potable water, food, cash, and gasoline was becoming clear. The president flew on a Friday night to Alabama for a campaign rally for his preferred candidate in a GOP Senate runoff, where he made scant reference to the suffering of our fellow Americans but instead — in a state that had once defined state-sponsored racism with biting police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham — went on a not-even-dog-whistle rant against black athletes who kneel during the national anthem as "sons of a bitch" protesters.
Then he flew back to his upscale golf club in New Jersey, where — as the Washington Post reported this weekend in a remarkable "tick-tock" recounting — he completely ignored the Puerto Rico crisis right at the moment it required high-level attention. It was telling that Trump did hold a cabinet meeting during those critical days in Bedminster, N.J. — not to talk about the thirsty, starving Americans on the Caribbean island, but on how to continue banning people from primarily Muslim countries from entering the United States. He tweeted up a storm, against black athletes from the NFL and the NBA, while ratcheting up the risk of a nuclear war in North Korea, and, incredibly, even dropped by a gathering of local BMW dealers, the kind of guys that The Donald feels comfortable around.
But Trump has also made it clear, during his White House stint, whom he is not comfortable with: Anyone who criticizes him who happens to be black, brown, or female — or some combination thereof. This is a presidency, after all, where officials called for the firing of a black woman, ESPN's Jemele Hill, who dared to use her platform to criticize Trump, but didn't seem too worked up when a late-night TV host such as Stephen Colbert who isn't black or brown or female bashed the president in terms that even many Trump disparagers thought went too far.
So when San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz appeared on cable TV news — the only reality that matters in Trump World — after wading through sewage-laden floodwaters with her bullhorn looking for survivors, and stated what has become painfully obvious in recent days, that the federal response has been both inadequate and poorly managed and that more help was needed to "save us from dying," the president's response — condescending, bitter, narcissistic, and larded with racism — managed to be both outrageous and tragically inevitable.
The narcissist-in-chief took that mayor's cry for help personally, saying it was "nasty" and politically motivated, and then he took it further to seemingly attack the entire island as people who "want everything to be done for them" — an issue that didn't seem to matter when Trump signed legislation sending billions in aid to Texas after Hurricane Harvey. In his harsh words, Trump managed to both embrace a tradition of white supremacist tropes in American politics — remember Reagan's "welfare queens" and "young bucks"? — and take that to a nauseating new level, denigrating people of color as a dodge to excuse his own not-so-benign neglect of Puerto Rico's plight in the most pivotal moment.
On Sunday morning, the president doubled down with a new swipe, clearly aimed at the mayor and her supporters, as "ingrates." Let that sink in. This is the apotheosis of a trend, brilliantly dissected in a recent piece by the Harvard professor and New Yorker essayist Jelani Cobb, in which "ungrateful" has become the new "uppity" — that prominent blacks or Hispanics who use their platform to advocate for social justice are now "ingrates" after all the riches that a white patriarchy has bestowed upon them. This is the toxic underpinning behind Trump's tweets, as our president has sunk so low as to try to hold his political base together with increasingly overt racism.
Maya Angelou said famously that "when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." Trump began his campaign that day in 2015 with a blast at Mexican "rapists," and he has shown us his racism — with his attack on a Mexican-American judge, against Gold Star parents who were Muslim, against black pro athletes, and now against the people of Puerto Rico — again and again. And yet too many people — my colleagues in the media,and millions of "respectable" citizens who voted for Trump last November — refused to believe him. Now Trump's prejudices are a global black eye for the United States, but they've become much, much worse.
Because people are actually dying.
There are some wonderful public servants — from FEMA, the U.S. military, and other agencies — on the ground in Puerto Rico, but there are not nearly enough of them. When a massive earthquake struck Haiti in 2010 (unlike Hurricane Maria, with no advance warning), the government under Barack Obama organized a fairly speedy response with 20,000 American troops and other personnel, or about four times the initial response to Puerto Rico, which — it can't be said often enough — is actually part of this country.
There are still devastated towns not far from San Juan that have yet to see FEMA, 11 days after the storm. There are reports of contagious illnesses and fears of cholera because too many Puerto Ricans are without drinking water or medicine. There are hospitals dealing with ongoing power issues and shortages, and U.S. military officials reported this weekend the number of towns without running water is rising, not falling. That's the reality of what happens when the shots are being called by a head of government who is callous and, when called out, responds with racism instead of empathy or other recognizable human emotions.
Trump's words have massive consequences, and this goes well beyond Puerto Rico. It's not surprising that — weeks after the president told an audience of cheering cops "don't be too nice" with criminal suspects — the police ran wild in St. Louis. Or that voters in Alabama riled by this poisonous political climate — in which the commander-in-chief couldn't find it in his heart to condemn neo-Nazis in Charlottesville — went beyond Trump's pick to nominate a Senate candidate in Roy Moore who is even more extreme, who openly discriminates against Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and others. The man behind the desk in the Oval Office has opened a Pandora's box of hate.